A Grue Ate My Graphics

The year was 1985, and the Commodore 64 lit up my dark bedroom – or was it a dungeon? My room was in the basement away from my troublesome brother and sister.  It was here that I spent many hours exploring labyrinths of peculiar logic for excitement and adventure. Technology changes and now we are in immersive VR environments that put us seemingly in real dungeons. Funny, years later I now find myself again trying to spelunk through archaic dungeons with my son’s robotics team. 

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Video games were splotchy with block pixels moving about the screen. Sometimes you were very lucky if you could discern what was happening on the screen. Take a look at Atari 2600’s Adventure video game to know what I’m talking about. My much more powerful computer was the Commodore 64. It had 64 bit graphics and stereo sound – it was a technological marvel. So why did my favorite games have no graphics and no sound?
Infocom was a video game publisher that made text adventure video games. There were no graphics in their games (Ed. Note. …until Activision bought them out). Infocom helped players by including crazy tchotchkes with each floppy disk you’d buy in the store. These tchotchkes would range from scratch and sniff cards to model recreations of spaceships from the stories we played. These little gifts did not help, and players were left to use their imagination to build the world they were dropped into. Imagine if you could take a Choose Your Own Adventure book, combine it with a little bit of health, a dynamic set of rooms, and other characters you could interact with – that would be an Infocom game, sprinkled with a liberal amount of sarcasm, humor, and cutting wit. 
Zork was Infocom’s flagship title. I can remember the lights being out in the basement. The only glow lighting the room was my Commodore 64 television. There the cursor pulsed a strobe effect in the darkness. 
West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.
>_
Text adventure video games were an open field with an endless number of possibilities. You could explore all points of the compass. Blocky pixel graphics do not have the same resolution as our own imagination and certainly didn’t offer expansive environments to explore. I was transported from my dark bedroom to a big wide sky and a field of wheat. The abandoned house was stained with water run-off from the dirty gutters. I could feel the wind rushing, not stopping for any tree in the way. And there was the mailbox. The mailbox was just there waiting to be opened. What was inside that mailbox?
The game continued until the darkness of my room became oppressive – the darkness, as I learned in Zork, could harbor a Grue. What is a Grue you ask? It is a foul beast that hides its ghastliness in the dark and only eats those foolish enough to venture close without a lamp. If they are hungry, the will pounce quickly, and there is nothing to save you but being a well-prepared traveler.
After all this time, there are few games I remember on the Commodore 64. My father brought home the C64 largely because of the sound and graphics. Here we had all this power for computer processing, colors, and stereo sound. Yet the game I remember most is Zork and all of the text adventures that followed after that. Zork was so inspiring that I even made my own versions of Zork with the BASIC programming language. 
My simple programs were loaded with print statements and if…then conditionals. The programs themselves were logic mazes my friends could only stomach for a few turns. What could a kid in Junior High put together that could compete with a professional game like Zork? That difference in quality, however, didn’t matter. My friends and I loved them. We were creating our own adventures and sharing them with delight between one another. This is one magic act that can be shared with the youth of today. 
A lot of projects try to get students involved in programming – some go to great lengths abstracting away the programming language through visual metaphor. There is merit for these great works, but where is the simplicity and interactive complexity of the natural language? Fortunately, those same simple programs I made with my friends long ago can still be developed today with a couple of different programming languages, one of which is Java. 
This year is the second year that we will be running the NOVA Java Text Adventure Game Jam. It’s a competition for students grades 6-12 to develop Java video games. We spend the weeks before the event teaching them how to program in Java. For a lot of students, this will be their first time working with Java. For most students, it will be the first time creating something with Java that will actually do something. Last year, it was incredible to see the crazy games that the students made. It felt like I was slipping back into 1985 all over again. 
If you or a student you might know thinks it interesting, check the game jam’s website. We will be releasing programming tips on the blog between now and the game jam. You’ll also find more details about the game jam that might peek your interest and help build your own text adventure video game. 

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